15th January 2018

Rethinking the ‘red tape’ attitude

With public protection slowly being ripped to pieces by years of systematic cuts to ‘red tape’, could Grenfell be a watershed moment that allows us to rethink regulation?

By Steve Tombs
Professor of Criminology, Open University

On the morning that Grenfell Tower burnt, I was speaking at an event at Liverpool University on ‘emotions and politics’. There I spoke about the contempt – the virtual hatred – with which the term ‘regulation’ had come to be used by politicians, the media, and more popularly.

For almost three decades, the work of regulators – not least in terms of enforcement – has been undermined by politicians of all parties, the very idea of regulation ridiculed to the point that its equation with ‘red tape’ has become established within political and popular consciousness. Since the Hampton Review of regulation and enforcement was launched by then-Chancellor Gordon Brown in 2004, the regulatory landscape has changed dramatically in the UK. These changes were introduced under the disarmingly uncontroversial rubric of ‘better regulation’ – who, on earth, would want worse regulation?

In a recent book, I have traced four key mechanisms through which Labour, Coalition then Conservative governments embedded this new regulatory agenda. First, a constant stream of reviews of specific regulatory agencies and of the practice and purpose of regulation in general; second, the establishment of a plethora of institutions within – and of – government; third, various legal reform initiatives that have delivered both deregulation and re-regulation; and, fourth, a long-term rhetorical assault on regulation as ‘burdensome’, ‘red tape’ and so on.

Anti-regulation rhetoric, 2004-2010

This, in many respects, continued a low-level rhetoric that could be traced back at least through to the Thatcher government, which cast regulation as burdensome, red tape and a barrier to enterprise. But it was in the early years of the second New Labour administration that this ideological attack on regulation was increased – as if by design, across a plethora of political and media sources, precisely to accompany the establishment of the Hampton Review.

This period saw a key series of high profile speeches decrying the anti-entrepreneurial effects of regulation, the dangers of risk-averseness and the need for a new, ‘sensible’ debate about the relationship between risk and regulation. These were played out against the backdrop of a considerable ratcheting up of the anti-regulation thematic of print and broadcast media.

Underlying much of this was often a more or less thinly disguised anti- European – or EU – sentiment, the latter being seen as the source of a whole plethora of attempts not just to over-regulate Britain, but also to undermine Britishness – a theme that ultimately played out to dramatic effect in the referendum decision to leave the Union in June 2016.

Finally, anti-regulation rhetoric cohered with populist railing against so-called political correctness – another instance of being told by the state what to do, think, feel or say. It is worth emphasising that, in isolation, many of these rhetorical interventions might appear irrelevant, spurious, or even downright silly. But it is their ubiquity that is significant.

From Tony Blair as Prime Minister and Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer, across The Guardian – notably via Simon Jenkins and Simon Hoggart – to the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, BBC Radio 5’s Drive show and Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear, there was a constant drip, drip of undermining the very idea of regulation. In effect, it was the sound of a new common-sense being constructed, within which regulation was already illegitimate, irrelevant, nanny state-ish, counter-productive, burdensome, pernicious, anti-entrepreneurial and, even at the personal level, antithetical to ‘normal’ human development.

Many of the regulatory myths propagated during this period tended to focus particularly on health and safety, the bête-noire of the over-regulation mantra, but had the effect more generally of undermining regulation and regulators. It is no coincidence that two of the most infamous stories can both be dated back to 2004, the year in which Hampton was appointed to undertake his major review of regulation: one, the claim that local councils had begun to ban hanging baskets; and the other, that some schools had started to ban the use of conkers in their playgrounds.

Then, in 2005, Prime Minister Tony Blair made a key speech in which he recycled well-worn myths, which – by that time – had attained the status of truths:

• You may recall the stories of the girl who sued the Girl Guides Association because she burnt her leg on a sausage, or the man who was injured when he failed to apply the brake on a toboggan run in an amusement park…

• Public bodies, in fear of litigation, act in highly risk-averse and peculiar ways. We have had a local authority removing hanging baskets for fear that they might fall on someone’s head, even though no such accident had occurred in the 18 years they had been hanging there. A village in the Cotswolds was required to pull up a seesaw because it was judged a danger under an EU Directive on Playground Equipment for Outside Use. (Blair, 2005)

These kinds of stories may be frivolous, lacking objective seriousness and have a derisive tone but, in combination, they raise the spectre of regulators enforcing in overzealous ways, focus attention on the inappropriateness of regulation, and reinforce the spectre of ‘a powerful, impersonal regulatory bureaucracy’.

Anti-regulation rhetoric, 2010 onwards

In 2010, Labour made way for a Coalition government. But, if the political balance of power was changed radically, the rhetorical assault on regulation proceeded as before. Just three weeks into the new government, Vince Cable established a Reducing Regulation Committee when installed as business secretary. Its aim was to ‘put an end to the excessive regulation that is stifling business growth’. As he put it, ‘the deluge of new regulations has been choking off enterprise for too long. We must move away from the view that the only way to solve problems is to regulate’.

The rhetoric against regulation was consistent, and often coming from the highest level of government, notably from then-Prime Minister Cameron. A few highlights suffice to make the point of the level of vitriol aimed at regulation and regulators.

On 6 August 2011, disorder broke out in Tottenham, North London, following a demonstration at the police shooting of a young black man, Mark Duggan. Within three days, riots followed across many London boroughs, towns and cities in the West and East Midlands, as well as in Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester. Two men were killed in Birmingham, one in Croydon, hundreds of millions of pounds of damage was caused to businesses and homes, shops were looted, police lost control for periods of major urban centres and, within a week, more than 1,000 people had been arrested.

This was a major series of incidents. Nine days after the first outbreak of disorder in North London, the Prime Minister made his first major, set piece speech to comment upon these events. In that speech in Birmingham on 15 August 2011, Cameron announced that the government would ‘review every aspect of our work to mend our broken society’, including focusing on ‘the obsession with health and safety that has eroded people’s willingness to act according to common sense’. Indeed, what he went on to call ‘the human rights and health and safety culture’ was a source of ‘damage [to] our social fabric’.

Weeks later, at the Conservative Party Conference, he continued the theme. ‘One of the biggest things holding people back is the shadow of health and safety. I was told recently about a school that wanted to buy a set of highlighter pens. But with the pens came a warning. Not so fast – make sure you comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002. Including plenty of fresh air and hand and eye protection. Try highlighting in all that. This isn’t how a great nation was built. Britannia didn’t rule the waves with armbands on… At long last common sense is coming back to our country.’

Then, in January 2012, Cameron made a new year’s resolution ‘to kill off the health and safety culture for good. I want 2012 to go down in history not just as Olympics year or Diamond Jubilee year, but the year we get a lot of this pointless time-wasting out of the British economy and British life once and for all.’

It was a resolution to be repeated the following January, when he derided the fact that health and safety rules stop children getting work experience in companies.More latterly, he invoked regulatory myths as he previewed a new Deregulation Bill, enacted in 2014. Thus, he told the Federation of Small Businesses: ‘This government has already stopped needless health and safety inspections. And we will scrap over-zealous rules that dictate how to use a ladder at work, or what no-smoking signs must look like. ‘We’ve changed the law so that businesses are no longer automatically liable for an accident that isn’t their fault. And the new Deregulation Bill will exempt 1 million self-employed people from health and safety law altogether.’

The high-point of anti-regulation sentiment was perhaps reached in the seismic political shock of 2016, which saw the UK vote for Brexit. Anti-regulation hostility was central to the campaign against the EU – everyone loves to hate red tape. The EU rules and regulations that supposedly restrict Britain’s freedom were a primary theme of the non-racist wing of the ‘Leave’ campaign during the referendum. Brexit, we continue to be told by its champions, is a golden opportunity to make a ‘bonfire of red tape’. Red tape supposedly hurts everything from small businesses to individuals’ job prospects and the grand projects of visionary governments. Bleak times for social protection indeed. Perhaps that momentum shifted on 14 June, when Grenfell burnt.

Grenfell changes everything?

Now, one of the phrases heard regularly in the immediate aftermath of the tragic fire, which took at least 70 lives, is that ‘Grenfell changes everything’. This is in relation to fire service funding, tower block design and maintenance, public safety – and, not least, in terms of how we think and speak about regulation. Indeed, as commentator Steven Poole has reminded us: ‘Red tape also means regulations that protect citizens, at a certain cost to companies that otherwise have little incentive to sacrifice some profit to mitigate risk. It is because of red tape that you cannot buy a flammable sofa, and that you are very unlikely to die in an air crash.’ Poole added: ‘Much red tape is, indeed, the frozen memory of past disaster.’

Indeed it is. Grenfell might be the event to create a new memory. The trauma of witnessing the fire, depression and survivor guilt – and feeling unable to cope with the loss of loved ones – has already generated suicide attempts, and will continue to do so, blighting the lives of individuals, families and communities for years to come. The UK had the world’s first system of social protection, put into place from the 1830s onwards, initially in relation to worker health and safety, unadulterated food and pollution control. We must reclaim the language of social protection to refer to regulation, and we must recognise that the men and women who staff our regulatory agencies are not meddlesome bureaucrats, but people who have chosen to spend their life in vital public service.

If Grenfell can contribute to the terms of debate being changed, then those 70 lives will not have been lost completely in vain.

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